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There is something about Jon Bernthal that suggests a gun. The sawn-off hair, oiled and black. The tuned and calibrated body. And the loaded stare that tells you the safety is off. Every time he speaks, in Ghost Recon Breakpoint, his dialogue rolls and rumbles with what can only be described as muzzle velocity. He plays the game’s villain, Lieutenant Colonel Cole D. Walker, the leader of a rogue group of ex-special forces soldiers called the Wolves, and he has the wit to wake the game’s story up with a blend of wryness and rage. ‘That just brings a tear to my eye,’ he says, as a canister of tear gas clatters along the floor. Moments later, he stands firing his revolver repeatedly into a window of bulletproof glass, behind which lies his prey. Whatever Walker’s breakpoint was, he’s way passed it now.
You take (or rather, if you played 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands, you reprise) the role of Nomad, a member of the Ghosts – the elite unit that Walker walked out on. Your team is sent to a fictional archipelago in the middle of the South Pacific, called Auroa (a cooler climate than the Bolivia of Wildlands, which was heated less by the sun and more by the tempers, and trampling boots, of the U.S. military), when a cargo ship, the USS Seay, sinks off the coast. Auroa is owned by Jace Skell, a tech magnate with bushy eyebrows and a blonde mop, who is a dead ringer for Andy Warhol. It was Warhol who said, ‘I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want’; In that spirit, Skell sets about securing humanity’s green future. ‘Welcome to Auroa,’ he says, in a corporate instructional video, ‘the incubator of World 2.0.’
Such sentiments are a breath away from Bond villain territory, hence the dispatching of the Ghosts. But before they can land, their helicopters are besieged by a swarm of buzzing drones. After waking in the forest, dazed and dangling upside down from the canopy (a neat closeup of Nomad’s face catches the blood as if it were running upwards from each cut), you set about finding your fallen comrades; pursuing Walker and his Wolves, who have taken up residency on the islands; and working out what’s going on. This is done by decluttering the map of question marks, shooting your foes (who have numbered power levels), storming enemy bases, and using your pet drone to scout ahead.
In other words, it’s a Ubisoft game. But there are times when it’s tough to tell which Ubisoft game it is. One NPC informs you that ‘a powerful evil has infiltrated the Ancient Forest,’ before telling you that she was ‘praying that the spirits would send a brave warrior to help us in our moment of need.’ Close your eyes and you could be playing Assassin’s Creed, For Honour, Far Cry, or even Rayman. And even with them open, the cross-pollination of mechanics has merged the publisher’s games into a set of repeated rituals. It’s gaming’s equivalent to the Carry On films, in which, whether you were screaming, cruising, camping, or up the Khyber, you were assured of the presence of Kenneth Williams.
It’s easy to be skeptical of Ubisoft – to drag one’s feet through its worlds, which feel, at times, as though they were themselves clicked and dragged into being. But I happen to find much to revere in reliability: in the gradual climbing of a skill tree, into which the ceaseless surge of your XP is piled, and in the bright sprawl of the landscape, broken up into biomes of varying prettiness. All of which are present in Ghost Recon Breakpoint and are accompanied by a steady diet of guns, explosions, and the Barbie-doll thrill of reworking your wardrobe. The latter is done not merely for the merits of fashion but for increasing the level of your gear, and thus your overall strength. Still, I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a smirk of satisfaction in obtaining boots, gloves, and body armour in matching black.
All this gear is strewn throughout Auroa – in crates and scattered by dead soldiers – along with the guns, and it’s graded from green to blue and purple, increasing in quality. Old guns are cannibalised by the new; you strip each weapon down for scrap, which is then encrusted onto newer models – increasing accuracy, range, firepower etc. What a marvellous waste of time, especially considering mine was the stealthy approach, prizing, above all else, the pop of a headshot, which could be done with the first gun you find. Still, whether the chasing of loot, championed by Destiny and The Division, is a blight or a blessing, I can’t deny that for a few days I was lost in the cheerful churn. There is, after some time, a sudden sensation of snapping out of it, but I made no dramatic disavowal of Breakpoint (as I would for something like The Sims, after spending long stretches of life without eating and showering). I just drifted happily on.
And I have to say, it helps an awful lot that the getting of those headshots is satisfying. The shooting in Ghost Recon Breakpoint has more grit than, say, The Division – with its frictionless slide and snap, as you breeze from cover to cover. I’m not sure that Breakpoint belongs to the tactical shooter genre, as did the Ghost Recon games of old; for one thing, the texture of those tactics has changed. Rather than squad-based strategy, you are now glutted with solo options. I made frequent trips to the over-crammed control screen, the better to brief myself on the finer points of combat: switching shoulders and rifle scopes; firing up night and thermal vision modes; clicking into over-the-shoulder aim, to widen the field of view, before switching to first-person, for extra precision; and the feathery art of the light trigger-squeeze, to hold your breath and thus steady the sway of your aim.
What this deluge of options does, aside from provide a pleasing specificity to dealing death, is widen the range of available approaches – my favoured plan was to lie prone and dust myself with dirt, inching along and loosing off headshots – what it doesn’t do is guarantee any measure of challenge, which, before Breakpoint and Wildlands, was synonymous with the series. When you start the game, you are given the option of an ‘Arcade’ difficulty, offering ‘a laid-back experience.’ I opted for the ‘Regular’ setting, but, considering my go-to option, on occasions of dwindling patience, was to anchor an AH-64 Apache helicopter high above a base and blast it with Hellfire missiles, I’m not convinced there is much of a difference. I mean, what is that if not a laid-back experience?
If you’re after something more intense, you might try the multiplayer – particularly, the new Ghost War PvP mode, in which two teams of four clash in a carved-out patch of Auroa. There is Sabotage: where one team attempts to plant a bomb and the other tries to defuse it. And there is Elimination: a standard deathmatch mode. Strangely enough, it was in these modes – infested with frantic assaults and bursts of clamouring voice communication – that I could make out the shape of the older Ghost Recon games. They were the sort of difficult that demanded patience and alertness, rather than raw mechanical skill; Ghost War requires both, something I was able to reflect on at length, as my body was being lugged along on the shoulders of a sharp-witted teammate.
I spent most of my time with Breakpoint going it alone, in the single-player missions, not bound solely by a sense of deadline-driven purpose but rather intrigued by the plot. Correction: by Bernthal. Ever-lengthening is the list of games that bear the name of Clancy, and ever thinner is their connection to anything in his books. But there are a couple of things here that Clancy might approve of. First, there is the tech-infested Auroa, which has the airy feel of a battle royale map, numb to natural life. It seems the sort of place that the techno-thriller, so popularised by Clancy, was destined to end up. Then, there is Walker. Clancy once described the hero of Rainbow Six, John Clark, as a shadowy version of his true-blue boyscout hero Jack Ryan: ‘John has always been Ryan’s dark side. He’s the guy who does things that Ryan would prefer not to do.’ Might they be the sort of things that drive someone to breakpoint? Never mind Nomad, give Walker a game of his own!
Developer: Ubisoft Paris
Available on: PlayStation 4 [reviewed on], Xbox One, and PC
Release Date: October 4, 2019
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